The year 1970 ushered in a decade of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Despite or perhaps because of these landmark achievements, environmentalists as a group were marginalized by mainstream and corporate America….
…Until the late 1980s, when business leaders realized that going green was good for the bottom line and that it was time to cash in. Casting about for a more palatable term than “environmentalism,” CEOs zeroed in on “sustainability,” a moniker that sounded lofty in theory– “development that preserved the world for future generations”–but in practice meant you didn’t need to enact any more environmental regulations because the market would push everyone in the right direction.
Inspired by the likes of Paul Hawken, William McDonough and Ray Anderson, companies churned out corporate sustainability reports by the hundreds, and journalists like myself wrote glowing profiles of businesses that reduced their waste stream by x and their energy and water use by y, in the process making their employees happier and healthier and their products safer for consumption by young children…
…Until the 21st century, when it became apparent that despite all the sustainable businesses led by sustainable MBA graduates working in LEED certified buildings, greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction and species decline were still increasing at an alarming rate.
People also began to realize that sustainability as a concept meant almost anything anybody wanted and therefore nothing.
So opinion makers were once again cast adrift for want of a paradigm– until 2007, when the United Nations reported that for the first time in history, more people would live in cities than in rural areas. Mulling this over, the powers-that-be realized that they too, lived in cities and that urbanism was as good a metaphor as any for the kind of efficient green networks necessary to preserve the world for future generations.
As books, magazines and blogs about urbanism proliferated—Green Metropolis, Next American City, Urbanophile– city boosters reveled in the idea of the urban center as the ultimate ecological system, a place where people, money and ideas intersect for the greater good. Of course, cities are as much a magnet for epidemics, wars and terrorist attacks as they are fertile ground for urban agriculture, bike commuting and democratic protests in Egypt.
But never mind all that.
Because when we hop on our bikes for a coffee at Ristretto, we think how nice it is to live in a city at a time when cities are all the rage. And if we dream every once in a while of game changing federal environmental legislation—maybe a national renewable energy policy or a cap and trade–well, maybe it’s not a dream, it’s part of the history of (21st century) urbanism.
And if we’re lucky, we’ll get a chance to repeat it.